Renewable Farming

As corporate giants offer “data intensive” technology, we like a weigh wagon

Monsanto’s spinoff of Precision Planting to Deere & Co., announced today, sends a puzzling signal to farmers about Monsanto’s direction.

Several indications have come from Monsanto recently that it’s re-inventing itself as a data company… and now they’re selling a sophisticated data-based system bought in 2012 for a reported $250 million.

Deere & Co. says the acquisition will allow farmers more flexible retrofit connections to Deere equipment.

Reuters has a detailed report which captures some of the questions raised by farmers, including Steve Pitstick of Maple Park, IL, who has been following this development and posted this “data intensive” photo on Twitter.  Steve has so many monitors in the tractor cab that he quips, “When they put it all on one iPad, I’ll be able to see out of the cab.”

We encourage data acquisition, especially field testing of products and techniques under realistic field conditions. If these data collections can be automated, they’ll more likely get done. For years we’ve struggled to collect field-trial information from farmers by asking them to flag test strips, collect weigh wagon data, take grain samples for lab analysis and so.  Our success rate is about 10%.  Most of the reasons no data materialized simply reflect realities of farming, not a lack of good intentions.  A sampling of reasons why we couldn’t get useful yield data:

“Bart put out the flags in the spring where he sprayed the WakeUP, but Dad was running the combine and didn’t see the flags.”

“I decided to combine crosswise across the test strips instead of following the rows lengthwise, like we had flagged. I guess the yield monitor kind of blended the yield readings.”

“Wind caused so much stalk damage that it pretty much wiped out any meaningful comparisons.”

“It rained, so we couldn’t take tissue samples.”  (This was an excuse from a professional research firm we paid almost $1,000 for a simple plot trial)

“The co-op oversprayed the test strip area with fungicide, but we’re not sure which strips were affected.”

“We just didn’t want to take the time for weigh wagon measuring; rain was in the forecast.”

“Deer destroyed part of the strips; I don’t know how much adjustment to make.”

Thus, we’ve depended more heavily on our own test strips, using our version of the Practical Farmers of Iowa field trial protocols established years ago. Our mentor, Dick Thompson of Boone, IA, always said, “Show me the data.” 

Our “precision farming” data acquisition system

Each year on our 40-acre patch, we can test five or six products or practices. Our “yield monitor” is an electronic weigh wagon, not a sophisticated combine monitor. We need test weights, moisture and very consistent total weights from strips which are usually about 350 feet long. We try for at least six replications if possible, and that means six control strips.